The Best of Both Worlds
I can’t help feeling rather smug. It’s because I’ve found a way to enjoy the best of both worlds. I know how to escape the worry of driving in unfamiliar territory where intimidating road maps and the fear of getting lost can spoil a holiday. I’ve avoided the obvious alternative: the guided tour where transportation, overnight accommodations and all details have been packaged and programmed by professionals. I’ve discovered instead a carefree way to see the best of England without having to cope with roundabouts and learning how to drive on the ‘wrong’ side of the road. I’ve discovered the country bus!
I never ride the crowded buses at home in L.A. but English country buses are different, and much more fun. They have given me a free and relaxed way to see the countryside and explore intriguing little villages and beauty spots that I would miss on a tightly organized tour. Best of all they have allowed me the freedom to stay at charming inns, and bed and breakfast guest houses in beautiful rural areas that are off the beaten track.
During a ten day stay at John Saunders and J. M. Faye Schjoll’s Hyde Farm House in Frampton in the county of Dorset last June, I traveled all over Dorset and even slipped into Wiltshire, Somerset and Devon a few times but I was always back in Yon and John’s lovely conservatory that over looks the River Frome by early evening in time to relax until John called me and his other guests in to dinner. Frampton is five miles outside Dorchester in Dorset’s prettiest countryside. During morning strolls around the garden or after dinner walks along the leafy lane bordering the river I knew I had found the best of both worlds: the freedom from the care of driving with none of the restrictions and limitations of a tightly organized tour.
Each year when I arrive in Dorset the first thing I do is head for the nearest Tourist Information Center to pick up the new edition of the country bus timetables. It’s published each April by the Dorset County Council. While gardeners while away the winter months deep in seed catalogues, at home in L.A. I browse through bus timetables with a connoisseur’s eye planning next year’s journeys. The timetables remain basically the same from year to year but there are always a few changes so it would be foolish not to use up-to-date schedules.
Frampton is not only situated in delightful countryside, it’s on my favorite bus route – Southern National‘s No. 212 service between Dorchester and Yeovil. The little buses pass by the Southover Bridge in Frampton eight the times a day. It’s a twenty minute ride to Dorchester and from there I had almost unlimited choices. I could go to Blandford, Poole, Bournmouth, Lyme Regis, Sherborne, Weymouth or even to Salisbury in Wiltshire to name just a few. All I had to do was plan to be back in Dorchester no later than 7:05 PM to catch the last 212 to Frampton in time for one of John’s flawless meals. One time I traveled all of the way to Bath for lunch at Sally Lund’s and had no trouble making it back in time.
If I chose to go in the other direction for the much longer ride to Yeovil I would have an even wider choice when I arrived at the Yeovil Bus Station, not to mention the beautiful villages along the way, such as: Maiden Newton, Cattistock, Rampisham, Evershot, Melbury Osmond and Ryme Intrinseca. In Yeovil, the last bus back to Frampton leaves at 5:37 PM. That left just enough time for little excursions to pretty Somerset towns like Castle Cary and Somerton.
One of the nicest days last June was the day I combined busing with walking. I planned to walk from Frampton to Sydling St. Nicholas for lunch at the Greyhound Inn where I could catch the 216 service to Minterne Magna for a look at Lord Digby’s lovely wooded gardens, then catch a later 216 into Dorchester for a browse around the shops on South Street before catching the 212 back to Frampton.
The village of Sydling St. Nicholas is about four miles from Frampton over secondary roads that make for easy walking. I enjoyed the pleasant ramble through the beautiful Chalk Valley. As I neared the village I began to see Sydling’s thatched cottages with their tiny bridges spanning the Sydling Water (small stream) that runs through many of their front gardens. I noticed several new cottages since my last visit, and some still under construction.
I’ve always thought that Sydling is one of the most unaffectedly picturesque villages in Dorset. With all the new building going on it seems that the village will have a more up-market look; certainly the Greyhound Inn was much changed since my last visit. I remembered a comfortable but modest pub with a limited lunch menu. Now I entered a completely refurbished establishment crowded with diners and humming with music. The dinners didn’t seem to be villagers, they were all dressed in business suits. I decided most of them were escapees from offices in Dorchester or Yeovil out for a breath of country air. I ordered my usual Stilton ploughman’s but marveled at how much the menu had been extended.
After a stroll around the village and a visit to its quaint fifteenth century gargoyled church I was patiently waiting by the village cross when the 216 pulled up at 1:05, right on time. The only other passenger was a pleasant lady whom I had met before on another bus service when I was staying in Sturminster Newton. We remembered each other and had a nice chat during the fifteen minute ride to Minterne Magna.
The next bus from Minterne to Dorchester would arrive at 3:37 which meant that I would have a little more than two hours to enjoy the gardens and parkland that surround Minterne House, the seat of the present Lord Digby. It wasn’t until later that I learned that it was the childhood home of Pamela Harriman who was also a Digby. The fascinating country mansion built at the turn of the century is not open to the public but the gardens are and they are well worth the £1 entrance fee that visitors are requested to leave in the collection box by the gate. I think it’s nice that the gardens seem to operate successfully on the honor system with no one at the gate to collect the fee.
There are miles of lovely woodland walks with a great variety of trees and azaleas, but it is the 350+ species of rhododendron that make the gardens truly spectacular. I was the only visitor for the first hour so it was easy to enjoy the tranquil beauty.
Knowing that Minterne Magna is the Great Hintock of Thomas Hardy’s novels, I tucked a half finished paperback copy of The Woodlanders in my backpack before leaving Frampton. I found a secluded bench surrounded with brilliant red and yellow blossoms beside the stream that runs from the lake and had a lovely time reading a few chapters while in the actual setting that Hardy had in mind when he wrote this tale of unrequited love. I was distracted from my reading and several times broke out laughing because of the funny deep bass voices of the mother ewes calling their little lambs grazing in the meadow across the stream. The answering lambs had even funnier voices that quivered when they came running to their mothers.
I had time to investigate the medieval church of St. Andrew and inspect the memorials to the Churchill’s, Napiers, and Digby’s. I learned that Minterne has been in the family of the present Lord Digby since 1768 when it was purchased from the widow of General Charles Churchill, brother of the Duke of Marlborough. Before the Churchill’s it was owned by a family by the name of Napier. The name reminded me that if my bus was on time I could stop at the Nappers Mite tearoom in Dorchester for tea and a scone. It was with great difficulty that I promised myself to have only one scone with no clotted cream and no jam. Too often I have had a lovely cream tea around 4:00 only to realize too late that I had spoiled my appetite for the gourmet dinner served at Hyde Farm House around 7:30 PM.
The bus driver who stopped to pick me up across from the church was the same one who had delivered me there two hours before. He asked if I had enjoyed my visit. I replied that the garden was at its best as it always is in early June. We made good time from Minterne to Dorchester and arrived 30 minutes later in front of Dorchester’s County Museum. I had time for a leisurely tea then caught the 5:40 212 bus to Frampton on Trinity Street and was back at Hyde Farm House by 6:00 PM with plenty of time to change and chat with the other guests before dinner.
Since discovering Dorset on my first trip to England in 1982, I have returned each year to spend the better part of my six weeks vacation exploring this gentle green county and like to boast that there is not much that I’ve missed. Gold Hill, Chesil Beach, Maiden Castle, Corfe Castle, The Blue Pool – all have been investigated as well as all of the towns and a good number of its more than 200 villages. All have been reached with ease with the aid of the country buses.
However, until last June I had never visited one of its most famous and most photographed attractions. I had never seen Durdle Door, the massive rock archway situated in the sea on a promontory near Lulworth Cove. It’s joined to the mainland by a narrow neck of clay and is a dramatically beautiful example of geological erosion. I’ve been as far as Lulworth Cove several times but never had the energy to make the climb up the steep track to the point where the remarkable rock formation is visible.
This time I was determined to not only see it but to satisfy my shutterbug’s need to take a few snaps of my own of this phenomenon that has been described as “towering like a prehistoric monster quenching its thirst in the sea.” I consulted my trusty book of timetables and learned that I could catch Southern National’s No. 220 on Trinity Street in Dorchester at 12:55, arrive at Lulworth Cove at 1:40 and catch the returning bus at 5:00 PM. Three and a half hours seemed about right to explore and have tea in one of the cafes. The bus driver was very helpful and suggested that the best way to get to Durdle Door would be to get off by the caravan park just before reaching Lulworth Cove – walk through the park and climb over the style that leads to a down hill track that emerges right over Durdle Door. How simple! If I’d have known it was that easy I would have tried it long ago.
One of the summer residents of the park got off with me and walked as far as the style to make sure I headed in the right direction. She seemed very nice and told me that she and her husband and been coming to Durdle Door Caravan Park every year for fifteen years. I know that caravan parks are not too popular with Dorset residents because they think caravans spoil the countryside but, perhaps because it was early in the season, this one looked nice and neat and wasn’t an eyesore at all.
So often when one finally arrives at a highly recommended beauty spot they are disappointed. This was not the case when I arrived at Durdle Door. It seemed even more dramatically beautiful than in its countless photos. The zigzag line of craggy cliffs along the coast is the perfect setting for this ancient rock. It isn’t only Durdle Door that makes this stretch of coastline so beautiful – St. Oswald’s Bay and the circular Lulworth Cove viewed from Hambury Tout are amazing as well.
I walked down the track to the village of West Lulworth. When I looked back I silently thanked the bus driver for recommending that I start at the top and come down rather than tackle the steep climb to Hambury Tout from the cove. I followed the narrow street that leads down to the sea and found a duck pond and some interesting thatched cottages one with Gothic windows. Just west of the cove is Stair Hole where the sea has broken through Portland stone, cutting small arches underneath that look like smaller versions of Durdle Door. To the east of the cove is the Fossil Forest, a ledge of Purbeck limestone sea cliff with fossilized remains. They were formed from lumps of algae which accumulated around the bottom of trees millions of years ago. Today they look like very strange lobster pots.
The whole area is fascinating. There are wonderful walks through beautiful grassland sprinkled with wild flowers. I could see why Laurence Olivier picked Lulworth for his honeymoon with his first wife. I doubt if he found a prettier place to take Vivien Leigh.
The rest of my time in Frampton was spent on similar excursions, sometimes to Weymouth and a stroll around the picturesque harbor, sometimes as far as Taunton in Somerset, an interesting three hour ride that passes through Lyme Regis, Axminster, and Chard. Other times I traveled only a few miles to neighboring villages like Cattistock or Cerne Abbas where I could have a pleasant ramble before catching the return bus.
Of course, I have favorites that I visit each year – I’m very partial to places that offer a Dorset Cream Tea – but there are countless villages yet to be explored. Let’s see – I wonder if Powerstock has a tearoom. Maybe I will try Corscombe, and I hear that there’s a really good pub at Shave Cross…